Using a controlled detonation, Chinese researchers found a way to turn hot gas into plasma that contains racing ions that can be turned into current. They applied shock waves capable of accelerating compressed argon gas to as fast as 14 times the speed of sound, or Mach 14. Then, the charged plasma filled with ions was passed through a magnetohydrodynamic generator to create an electric current of up to 212 kilowatts from 26 gallons of gas. This generates power that far exceeds the capabilities of any currently available compact system.
According to the South China Morning Post, the scientists boasted that their system does not need any intermediate energy storage components. Instead, it is directly transferred to the load. In addition to starting up quickly, it is extremely efficient and has a very high capacity. Moreover, a lack of rotating parts means that it is easier to use and maintain.
The scientists report that they can produce a gigawatt of input power using just 177 cubic feet of hypersonic plasma. This is an amount that is smaller than most vans, and it produces enough to power some of the biggest weapons in development.
However, China is not ready to use their new system yet. First, they must address a number of logistical obstacles, such as how the device can be safely transported and how the gas that is required for a second charge can be handled while on the move.
In addition to their work on the hypersonic generator, Chinese scientists are leading the way in the hypersonic weapons race.
In March, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s Chief Scientist for Science and Technology, Paul Freisthler, warned the House Armed Services Committee that China is currently leading the world when it comes to hypersonic weapons.
Freisthler said that although both China and Russia have been making great inroads, China is the clear leader in terms of numbers of systems and supporting infrastructure.
He added: “Over the past two decades, China has dramatically advanced its development of conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic missile technologies and capabilities through intense and focused investment, development, testing and deployment.”
Although ballistic missiles can fly at hypersonic speeds, they must travel on a set trajectory. Hypersonic weapons, in contrast, can be maneuvered easily despite flying at speeds of Mach 5. This can make detecting and stopping them extremely challenging.
China is reportedly operating two research sites for its hypersonic weapon efforts and has at least 21 wind tunnels devoted to the research.
They announced this week that they have developed the most powerful hypersonic wind tunnel in the world. The JF-22 is capable of simulating flight conditions at Mach 30 and is currently housed in a mountainous area of northern Beijing. Claiming air flow speeds of as much as 6.3 miles per second, it is the fastest and biggest wind tunnel in existence. The owner of the facility, the Institute of Mechanics, said it will be used to “support the research and development of China’s space transport system and hypersonic aircraft.”
China has also developed a new hypersonic missile known as the DF-22 that is capable of penetrating American missile defenses and presents a serious threat to U.S. aircraft carriers. They are difficult to track due to their high maneuverability; their changing flight paths mean defending against them is very difficult.
Complicating matters further is the fact that they fly higher than subsonic missiles but lower than intercontinental ballistic missiles, moving in a region of airspace in which the U.S. and its allies do not currently have good tracking coverage. This could potentially limit the U.S.’s options when it comes to helping Taiwan should China decide to invade them.
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